When Brianna Rollins started winning races on the streets of Liberty City, the only spectators were the neighbors. She was a scrawny little girl, beating many of the boys on her block and she eventually joined the track team at Northwestern High, where legendary coach Carmen Jackson began grooming her to become one of the world’s elite hurdlers.
Wednesday night, more than 4,100 miles away from home, in front of a worldwide T.V. audience, there was Rollins, on the Olympic Stadium track, in long braids and a star-spangled headband, winning a gold medal in the 100-meter hurdles on the eve of her 25th birthday.
Rollins won the race in 12.48 seconds, leading a USA sweep – the first American sweep in the event’s history. Nia Ali won the silver medal in 12.59 seconds and Kristi Castlin won bronze in 12.61. After the race, the three women jumped up and down and wrapped themselves in American flags.
The U.S. had not won a gold medal on the track at this Olympics before the Rollins-led sweep.
Sitting in the stands was Jackson, attending her first Olympics, and surely beaming with pride.
Rollins is still on the small side at 5-5, but she is no longer skinny. She is muscular, explosive and her speed compensates for her shorter legs. She entered the race as the favorite favorite, posting the fastest time of the semifinal heats – 12.47 seconds.
The three American hurdlers had swept the three semifinals. Pedrya Seymour of the Bahamas finished second in Rollins’ heat, and her 12.64 was a national record.
Ali won the second semi in 12.65 and Castlin, who trains with Rollins, led the third in 12.63. The field was missing three of the world’s top hurdlers.
Reigning Olympic champion Sally Pearson of Australia is injured. Beijing 2008 champion Dawn Harper and world-record holder Kendra Harrison (12.20 seconds) did not survive the U.S. Olympic Trials. It was Rollins who had the fastest time at trials in 12.34.
Rollins won the 2013 world championship and finished fourth at the 2015 worlds. Her personal best is 12.26, and she was determined to continue the tradition of American success in the event. Americans have won at least one medal in every Olympics since 1984 except for 1996, when Gail Devers finished fourth.
In a recent interview with the Herald, Rollins, one of seven siblings, said her family didn’t have much money when she was growing up, so they spent a lot of time playing outside.
“We were not fortunate enough to have all the electronics and toys,” she said. “I hung out with my cousins and brothers. We’d climb trees, play basketball and football, and challenge each other to races.”
She wound up getting a scholarship to Clemson, where in 2013 she won the NCAA indoor and outdoor titles. It was during that summer that she won the world title, ahead of Australia’s Pearson and Great Britain’s Tiffany Porter. She was, at age 21, the youngest woman ever to win that world title.